How To Write Effective Headlines Part 3 [Copywriting Mini Guides]

This series is about writing headlines from a meta point of view. Read parts 1 and 2 first to get the background.

Eats, Shoots and Leaves took just 7 months to sell a million copies (and that was just the UK edition). The tag line (which acted as the headline) was “The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation”.

Can you imagine a more boring headline (apart from the one mentioned in part 2)? So the question is, what wizardry was at work here?

The answer is zeitgeist. It tapped into a huge market called pedantism. The author, Lynne Truss had run a series of programs on BBC Radio in the UK a couple of years earlier.

It proved so popular (what we’d call ‘testing the market’ in hindsight) that a small publisher got in touch with her and she agreed to write a book based on her findings from the series (that book being Eats, Shoots and Leaves).

Every successful launch is backed by a campaign (if you’re wondering why your headlines fail or your copy, however brilliantly written, also fails – ask what happened with the campaign running behind it and you’ll discover the answer – which is often: “what campaign?”).

The publishing company in Truss’ case was (and still is) Profile Books. Andrew Franklin (a co-founder of Profile) named the campaign the “Zero Tolerance Campaign”.

Like all good marketing strategies, it used the minimum possible number of words to explain itself (all the best strategies use the same approach – “Day One” from Amazon and “Think Different” from Apple being perhaps the two best known).

The radio series revealed one simple fact: people loved laughing at (and correcting) other people’s punctuation mistakes (many comedy shows, radio series, and newspapers had been exploiting this for years by taking advantage of shaming other publishers’ terrible headlines with embarrassing mistakes).

Both Lynne Truss and the publishers said at the time they had no idea if the book would sell (few ever do). But they started to realise they had something during early book signings when people would come up and tell them they were “sticklers” too (“sticklers” being the buzz word for zero tolerance punctuation pedants).

It didn’t take long to figure out most of the world felt the same way, so deals were struck across the planet, and the book has now sold over 3 million copies.

So what’s in a headline anyway? This: if you’re writing a headline, first ask if there’s a campaign behind it. If so, ask what the name of that campaign is. And then ask how that name will morph into a strategy.

If the answer to those questions is “none”, you’re going to need not just a huge dose of luck, but some hard brainstorming to invent something that taps into all the elements of a successful launch – zeitgeist, campaign idea, campaign name, and campaign strategy.

If, on the other hand, the answer is “YES!” the headline will shine out like a guiding beacon regardless of whether the campaign is successful or not – and you will have done all you can as a copywriter.

PS. This may not be the answer you were expecting, but think of it as being the one thing missing from all those cookie cutter headline templates we read about so often.


headlines, meta

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